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Here’s the Committee That Could Fix CA’s Transportation Funding Crisis

1:45 PM PDT on September 25, 2015

Senator Jim Beall, new co-chair of the Transportation Infrastructure Conference Committee
Senator Jim Beall, new co-chair of the Transportation Infrastructure Conference Committee, at a hearing in July.
Senator Jim Beall, new co-chair of the Transportation Infrastructure Conference Committee

Senate and Assembly leaders appointed members to the joint committee that will now take up the issue of transportation funding as called for by Governor Jerry Brown last June. The Transportation Infrastructure Conference Committee will consider pending legislation that was leftover from the regular session, including bills that would increase funding for transit and for active transportation.

The joint committee will include a smaller number of members from each house, the Senate and the Assembly, than made up the special session committees in the separate houses. The appointees—who must be confirmed by the Rules Committee of each house before their position is official—are:

From the Senate:

    • Senator Jim Beall (D-San Jose), Co-chair
    • Senator Benjamin Allen (D- Santa Monica)
    • Senator Connie Leyva (D-Chino)
    • Senator Anthony Cannella (R-Ceres)
    • Senator Ted Gaines (R-Roseville)

From the Assembly:

    • Assemblymember Jimmy Gomez (D-Northeast Los Angeles), Co-chair
    • Assemblymember Autumn R. Burke (D-Inglewood)
    • Assemblymember Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore)
    • Assemblymember Kevin Mullin (D-South San Francisco)
    • Assemblymember Jay Obernolte (R-Big Bear Lake)

Missing from the lineup is Assemblymember Jim Frazier, who chaired the Assembly's special session committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. He had called several information hearings to talk about the needs of the freight industry, but the subject didn't seem to get traction with other members. Staff members for Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins told Streetsblog that he was offered a spot on the committee and declined it, but Frazier's office did not return a request for comment.

Committee Co-chair Senator Beall's official statement set out his priorities as creating “a transportation revenue plan that will effectively address the backlog of deferred road maintenance for both state and local government roads, future repairs, and ensure the revenue that is raised is used for its intended purpose.”

Beall was the chair of the Senate special session committee, where he introduced a funding bill that included an increase in gas taxes. Although gas taxes have not been raised since 1994, and rising fuel efficiency in cars has meant the amount of money collected by the tax has dwindled over time, Republicans in both houses have steadfastly refused to vote for a tax increase. Since tax measures need the votes of 2/3 of all members, at least some Republicans have to be convinced a gas hike is necessary—and worth the political fallout—for one to pass.

The Republicans came up with their own proposal [PDF], which included reshuffling existing pots of money and using cap-and-trade funds to fix roads. A counter proposal by the governor has been floated that adapts some elements from the Republican plan, but also includes the tax increases proposed by Senator Beall and other Democrats. The governor's proposal contains controversial ideas, including using cap-and-trade funds and streamlining CEQA for transportation projects. The proposal has not been released as an official document, and much of its contents could be interpreted as bargaining chips to gain votes.

Therein lies both opportunity and danger, as the details are what matter. Making Complete Streets projects eligible for cap-and-trade funds, for example, sounds great. But if that results in painting sharrows on wide, fast roads and claiming they are a bicycle facility that reduces greenhouse gas emissions? That's not so great.

Joint conference committees are created when the two houses, Senate and Assembly, do not concur in each other's bill amendments. This is more a formality than a substantive action: the two houses agree not to agree on "spot bills," which are bills that for the moment state only their intention to do something in the future. This triggers the creating of a conference committee, where they can supposedly hammer out their differences.

But the true differences that need to be hammered out are between the two parties, not the two houses. The object will be to come up with a plan that will get enough votes to pass both houses, but the obstacles are big. Earlier hearings in the Senate spent time politely considering Republican proposals, like the plan to defund high speed rail, that were going nowhere. Although it seems like the big question is whether the committee can muster enough votes to pass a spending plan, other equally important issues are still up for debate, including how any money will be spent.

Much of the focus has been on potholes and congestion, but the question that hasn't been deeply grappled with is whether solutions are to simply repave and widen roads, or to also invest in alternatives that get enough people out of their cars to reduce congestion and wear and tear on roads and bridges. The fight over how to come up with funds—which everyone agrees are needed—has distracted from these fundamental and arguably more important questions.

Other issues are brewing as well, including how to make certain that any money collected will actually be used for its intended purpose. Fairly dividing any revenues collected—how much money will go to the state and how much to local jurisdictions—is another area of possible contention. That partly stems from the claim from rural areas that they need more money than per capital formulas allow them because their long drives are a necessary aspect of living where they do.

The joint committee will hold a series of hearings beginning in Sacramento in early October, although no schedule has yet been released. Assembly staffers suggest they will likely begin with informational hearings about the Republican and the governor's proposals. After that, hearings will be held throughout the state to talk about specific regional transportation needs. Those hearings, also not yet scheduled, will probably be held some time later in the fall.

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